Interview: Mushroom Master Paul Stamets Launches Life Box

The mushroom world couldn't have a better friend than Paul Stamets – and I assure you the feeling is mutual.

Stamets has been growing and studying fungi for about three decades. His family-run company, Fungi Perfecti, is the country's leading Certified Organic source for gourmet and medicinal mushrooms. But Stamets believes that fungi is more than a great source of food and health. In his most recent book, Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, Stamets argues that mycelium, the cellular web from which mushrooms emerge, forms nature's neurological network – its very own Internet. And with creditable scientists more than a little concerned about the ecological sustainability of our relationship to the planet, Stamets argues that mushrooms, fungi, and mycelia can be used to break down toxic wastes, deliver new medicines, and, most important, restore nature's equiblibrium by filtering water, reforesting landscapes, and enhancing our gardens.

How? Stamets, who already holds many patents in the field, has come up with a remarkably elegant solution. The Life Box is nothing more – nor less – than a cardboard box containing some 100 various tree seeds. These have been dusted with mycorrhizal fungal spores that symbiotically "protect and nurture" the seedlings. Instead of simply recycling the box, which you could also do, Stamets wants you to soak it, sprout its seedlings, and then replant them someplace where they can flourish and grow into mycelium-friendly forests. The competitively priced Life Box can also, of course. be used to hold or ship anything we already use cardboard boxes for.

The whole concept is so simple, you'd almost think the mushrooms wanted Paul Stamets to invent the Life Box. And perhaps they do.

HeadCount: So tell me the Life Box story. How did bring this brilliant idea to fruition?

Paul Stamets: It's been in development for more than twelve years, but I’ve been growing mycelium on cardboard for much longer. My books contain a lot of great photographs showing how fungal friendly cardboard is. Dusty, my wife, mulches the garden over cardboard, and we had a fabulous fruiting of mushrooms with it. So it dawned on me that we all have too many cardboard boxes in our lives and, because I know cardboard is fungally friendly, I started playing around and combining it with different vegetables and other plants. I used a mangler, which is this giant ironing board with a big cylinder rotator that can take off your fingers, to glue together cardboard sheets with seeds, spores, and fungi in the middle. The beginning was a comedy of errors.

I needed to find a corrugating company. The ones that didn’t quite show me the door tolerated my little idea and tried to help me. A key problem was that the heat involved in manufacturing most corrugated cardboard killed the seeds. It was a huge technological hurdle I couldn't overcome for several years even though I could do it by hand with room-temperature glues. Also, most corrugation machines were made upside-down for my purposes, meaning the seeds would fall out. My friend David Censi contacted some people he knows in that business. He discovered a very large company that had retooled an automated piece of machinery that by luck ended up perfectly symmetrical – so it didn’t matter how you put in the cardboard. Then we came up with a cold glue process, and that was the real breakthrough. When we learned that this domestic company was already using recycled cardboard and soy-based inks, it was the big slam dunk. David approach the company but got the usual reaction: eyes glazing over. David said, "Hear me out, trust me on this one." He convinced them to go ahead. As it turned out, the company's employees got incredibly excited that upper management doing something innovative and green, so there was a lot of enthusiasm. The company has thankfully committed considerable resources to make this a reality. They're making a major investment in highly automated machinery that can produce millions of Life Boxes.

What's the Life Box supposed to do?

Our goal, and our hope, is that it will become as ubiquitous as any plain brown box. The question becomes: Why wouldn’t you ship your products in a life box? Are you opposed to re-greening the earth? This is a bridge idea. It doesn’t matter what side of the climate-change issue you're on. I think everyone believes that planting trees is a good thing. Kids get the idea instantly. I became a biologist the day in kindergarten when I saw my first Dixie cup sprout a sunflower from I seed I had put in there and watered. It was a magical event. My grandson had the exact same experience with these trees. I told him that one day his grandkid’s grandkids might walk through an old-growth forest we created from a Life Box. And without skipping a beat he said, “Cool.” He immediately got it, and it was an epiphany I think we all can share. The Life Box empowers individuals. It may be a very depressing period psychologically and economically, but the Life Box delivers both hope as well as a solution to a pressing problem we all share.

With all those extra seeds and spores, how do you keep the cost comparable to those of regular corrugated cardboard?

Right now we're competitive with or cheaper than similar sized boxes you can buy from a UPS store. Fungi Perfecti already buys about $100,000 worth of boxes per year for mail orders, but we're not large enough to buy directly from a corrugation company. Now we can skip the middlemen. We're able to do an end run by offering the large corrugation company (with whom we have a confidentiality agreement) manufacturing exclusivity in the United States. So we're passing the savings down. We’ll make money on volume, which is key here.

Time is of the essence, too. There needs to be a threshold of mass in a very short period of time in order to have a positive effect. We're currently in the sixth major extinction event known to this planet. It’s the first extinction event caused by an organism, us. We live 78 years, but it's incredibly myopic to lack perspective on what really occurs in nature over hundreds of years, which in geological and ecological time is just a blip. But we're seeing a massive loss of species diversity and forests, with climate change occurring. I’ve been to several cities that I believe have committed ecological suicide. Shanghai is the clearest example. If you put a tent over Shanghai, people would die in days, if not hours, because of the amount of pollution being emitted. They're not generating enough oxygen to offset the pollutants they're generating. So we’re all ending up in this giant cesspool of a planet, and I'm afraid the tipping point has been passed. Unless we make a dramatically positive impact in a very short period of time, future generations are going to look back and think we lost the golden opportunity. I think the Life Box is an elegantly simple way to empower anybody and everybody to do something about climate change, and to really tie themselves back into nature.

Speaking of Shanghai, I live in Brooklyn with about a ten-square-foot backyard. How can people in dense urban environments use the Life Box?

Well you only need the space the size of two laptop computers. You rip up the box, soak it in water, and then chill it. That's called stratification, and it basically makes the seeds experience a winter, which activates them. After two weeks in your refrigerator or outside, bring the cardboard back inside, or put it on your porch, in a tray or pan with about an eighth of an inch of soil over it. The seeds will start germinating when the temperature reaches 50 degrees. You should end up with about one tree seed per square inch, and each Life Box has between 200 and 300 tree seeds. The trees can live happily in that little tray through the first season. The next season you transplant them into little pot. So basically you have two years to figure out where to plant them.

And this is where I challenge anybody. I see this as a form of ecological currency as well as a form of social currency. You’re in Brooklyn at a party. You're talking to Michael Pollan (who’s all over this) or somebody else, and you say, “I have these little baby trees I need to plant somewhere. Do you have some land in the country?" And if you can’t find somebody who will allow you to plant these little baby trees within two years, I think you have other problems.

After you plant the trees, you can register the GPS coordinates to our home page. As satellite imagery improves, you'll be able to see the trees – which I can already do with Google Earth. Then you can actually verify the carbon being sequestered as the trees grow.

The beauty of this is in the math. With as little as a two percent share of cardboard in the United States only, you could cover 25,000 square acres per week. Let’s just say one tree out of the 400 seeds grows, which is very conservative. If you have four boxes, four trees, you have to spread those trees about 30 feet apart from each other, which is approximately 1000 square feet. So you’ve gone from one square foot to 1000 square feet. You’ve gone from 25,000 square acres per week to 25 million acres per week. Now we’re talking about a serious way of being able to reforest the planet. And even if we only get a tiny fraction of that, it’ll still be globally significant.

How would you connect this to your case for the primacy of mycelia in the planet's day-to-day dynamics?

I sort of launched the Life Box toward the end of my TED talk. I see the Life Box as a delivery system. The beauty of it is there’s no extra weight and we have dispersion to individuals. The delivery system is already in place. So I see the creation of guilds of organisms using Life Box and seeds of trees, garden vegetables, grasses, flowers, whatever, combined with beneficial fungi, which creates soils. I’ve been very focused on ecological restoration projects and breaking down toxic wastes. And fungi are the vanguard species that reduce toxicity levels and enable downstream populations to proliferate. So the fungal constituent of this is extremely important because it expands the roots of trees an estimated 200-1000 times. It gives hosts resistance against disease, and makes soil spongy so it holds and retains water. When root systems expand, there’s more moisture in the soil, other organisms start thriving, and you end up with these oasis environments I call "mycelial lenses." As they expand, more soil is created and biodiversity increases.

After you launch the Life Box, what's next?

We’re going to make this zip code specific, eventually. If there's a wildflower or tree that's essential for a keystone species, that zip code will get a Life Box customized to that ecosystem's needs. We wrote every department of agriculture in the United States to ensure we’re not spreading any invasive species. We’ve been approved in Canada and the United States, and we’re going for Europe.